Monday, September 7, 2009


The characteristics in common between practising science and poetry interest me a lot, and are striking on the level that both rest on methodological and experimental epistemological frameworks as opposed to faith, pragmatic comfortableness and happiness in ignorance. However, the word experiment is somewhat ambiguous and experimental is often used to make things look more exciting or more scientific regardless of methodology.

The most common use of experiment is the pragmatical sense of trial and error, which might be a somewhat metaphorical generalisation of the scientific term, and which I will refer to as the TECHNOLOGICAL sense. In the field of technology, there is a task you want to perform and you keep testing procedures until you reach the goal. The small element of improvisation needed just because there isn't a fixed recipe, is there very weak sense of experiment which is at work here.

Either it works to produce the desired effect, and then everything is fine, you may write it down for future use but need not think about why it worked, or it fails, and then you just drop it, you may write it down to avoid repeating it in the future, but need not think about why it failed. You could of course repeat it, for the purpose of refining the procedure. Technology is all about testing whims and varying parameters to produce a certain preconceived effect. Its aims and methods has nothing to do with those of science.

Experiments in cooking, and experiments in politics and social engineering, are usually like this: either they produce the desired effect or not. All too often, experiments in social behavior and in art, music, literature are the same thing, a particular whim may succeed in establishing a person's confidence, or securing a pick-up, or expressing the artists' personal style or a topic set of problematics in a fresh, more efficient way. This is all experimenting in the weak sense, trying out some innovative or just unconventional means of reaching a particular, usually conventional, goal.

Within the framework of science, experiment is something completely different. In a SCIENTIFIC experiment, theories are tested, not ways of attaining goals.

A setup is designed where the outcome of the process will be able to say something crucial about the assumptions that gave rise to it. Very often you test which parameters are crucial for causal effects. The experimental setup is about controlling and varying factors so as to analytically isolate them and so actually identify the significant ones. It is all about producing knowledge. A negative outcome is just as interesting as a positive outcome, since the negative outcome demonstrates what was not a crucial factor.

In everyday settings, the scientific sense of experiment will sometimes go hand in hand with the technological sense. "Let's see if they accept my ideas if I just express them as loud and cursing as I can" and "Let's see if I manage to impress them if I wear this strange jewellery" are technology-style experiments if the primary purpose is to attain the goal, but scientific-style experiments if the important thing is to draw conclusions about the effects of one's own behavior on others (or on some particular set of others).

Scientific experiments should be designed so as to give one outcome if the theory behind it is true and another outcome if the theory behind it is false. The scientific sense of experiment wants to see what happens, under controlled circumstances. It could not give a damn about success and happiness in life, technological development, etc.

Poetry may be described as an experimental science of sorts, but its sense of experiment is yet another one. POETIC experiment is to create something unusual and unconditionally see what it will spark off. In some circumstances, this would best described vulgarisingly, as "stirring a little in the pot", in others more pretentiously as "durable systematic disorder" and "opening the gates to the unknown". Because it is all about the unknown, it is all about leaving behind the domain of habit and predictable effects, about releasing a dynamic which we don't know where it will lead, a path which is dynamic by the very reason that we leave behind the recipes and well-known routes of procedures we master. It is about attaining effects, but not the specific desired effect of technological concerns but the very opposite, the unpredicted effects. Thus the knowledge it seeks to establish is not about deciding between alternatives, about corroborating or falsifying preconceived theories, but of finding new openings, revealing new associations and connections. Therefore, all litterature and art which just struggles to produce certain effects we can dismiss as non-poetic. On the other hand, since scientific experiment and technological experiment are merely ways of testing things, from an epistemological and a pragmatical viewpoint respectively, it is often admitted that both are dependent on imagination to produce something to work on in the first place. Unleashing imagination is the way of the poetic, regardless of whether in cooking, writing, painting, dancing, musicking, everyday social behavior or what.. In the social sphere, such experimental interventions are often referred to as creating situations, and the situationists named their entire movement after them. (but of course acting on social dynamics do require some careful planning, some crude empiricism, and some skills in pragmatism, let us by all means say that revolutionary politics is a big game which require a coordination of all three senses of experiment...)

Failure, in this sense of experiment, is not the occasional "bad trip" but rather the not-too-rare failure to produce some psychic dynamics except conventional reactions. But it lies within the nature of the thing that concerns over effects can not be allowed to attain a primary place in the experiments, it is needed to silence that type of concerns and face the abyss, it is only then that one really abandons the technological sphere of petty task-fulfilling and enters the sphere of adventure. Failure is unavoidable, it may even be grandiose and beautiful.

Scientific and poetic experimentation alike rest on a fundamental break, an epistemological break, often referred to under the french name coupure. In science, that break is part of the conditions: you must leave aside your preconceived ideas, particular expectations, prejudices & habits, spontaneous jumping-to-conclusions pattern recognition, technological and practical concerns, and accept wherever the method leads, whatever the experiment says, regardless of personal opinions and psychic investments.

For poetry, the break is the sine qua non and the defining moment. An unprejudiced investigation into the workings of the imagination, language and sensory experience when facing the unknown.

Now, even though it is all about psychic dynamics and fearless devotion to the unknown conditionlessly, the poetic still has criteria too. We are specifically looking for psychic dynamics which are emancipatory, pleasurable, informative, unusual and strong, but these aspects are all interdependent, and dependent on the impact of the break itself, on the seriousness, resoluteness and fearlessness of the plunge - but also on innovativity and consistency of method, admittedly to some extent also on previous experience, mastery of techniques and good old sensibility (- we could say one does not create poetry, but one evokes it, is claimed by it, channels it, becomes its voice, more or less efficiently; so skills are mostly about the willingness to put one's available means at the service of the poetic).

What characterises poetry is that it deals with the unknown in a qualitative sense (beyond the purely formal characteristic of not being known); it is all about its sense of irreducibility. That irreducibility is the main characteristic of truly poetic psychic dynamics: that which is in a sense endlessly productive in that it can't breduced to any well-known ort well-knowable constellations of personal motives, social interactions, habitual associations of ideas, psychic defenses, etc.

Criteria are important, for evaluation is a crucial part of experiment. It is inherent in an experiment in a technical sense (did it work or not), and obviously the central moment in an experiment in the scientific sense, but I argue that it is crucial also in the poetic sense of experiment. Yes, let everything loose without concerns, but see afterwards how far it got, what it revealed, what heuristic lessons can be integrated into the methods arsenal, what types of dynamism and types of imagery was let loose; how to proceed further into the domains opened. In fact, very much of alleged poetic experimenting stops short in the domain of evaluation, and very often this is where "experimentalness" (or even the very label of poetry!) occasionally fulfills the function of a mere excuse for sloppy methodology, lack of planning, lack of afterthought.

Surrealism is a particular discipline to cultivate and study the specifically poetic experimentation, and also an area where evaluation of poetic experimentation plays an important part; often in an analytical manner, even more often in terms of furthering playing, experimenting, creating according to suggested routes of dynamism, of developing a very openended and changing, yet accumulative and collective, poetic phenomenology and mythology.

In a branch of the recent discussion about the book The crisis of exteriority in the surrealist movement, it turned out that several american surrealists were specifically upset by the fact that I had used the word "failure" about the book. I had said "an applaudable, enjoyable and partly very beautiful failure", but failure I said.

Nikos Stabakis and Johannes Bergmark both, defending the formulation without necessarily subscribing to the view, suggested that failure means something ambiguous or even constructive in an epistemologic or scientific context. Indeed it does. Obviously it was such connotations that made me frivolously employ the word without a thought that it might hurt someone. But nevertheless, in the actual place it was a lot more simple; I meant failure in a plain technical way. I concluded that the book did not launch a new theory or a new useful and clarifying epistemological framework in the field of surrealist investigations into the environment, which I felt it had claimed to do, both in the discussion leading up to the publication, and in the very title and introduction of the book. On the other hand, it was productive in provoking all this discussion, as it had been in provoking some very readable contributions in the book. This is part of the dynamics of failure.

But please snap out of this kneejerk reaction to accusations of failure. Of course it is a central pillar in the "american way of life" that each man must make his own happiness and humanity is spontaneousy divided into winners and losers by their own ambitiousness as an expression of the natural order of things. In this view, success is everything and failure is a catastrophe. But a surrealist view would not coincide with that ideology. First, it would possibly side with a democratic or humanist view, finding this distinction to be rigged, flawed and irrelevant for all important purposes. Then it would take one step further and conclude that in this specific hierarchies which define success and failure in the human sphere, a poet would necessarily have to start by accepting failure, in order to avoid the preconceived struggles over conventional prizes and actually open the door to the vast sphere of all other possibilities. Especially so in an american context. For some, this is the simple analogy between the poet, the mystic and the shaman. For others, it is a very specific political statement: no, we dismiss the future you have designed for us, we won't be taking part in your hunting for positions and your retreats into petty domestic happinesses; investigating the sense of being a human starts with being a loser and investigating the sense of life starts with failure.

Mattias Forshage
(revised version as of 11/9)

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